The Big XII is much maligned for its defense and with good reason. Big XII games routinely feature games with over one hundred combined points and prolific offenses beating up on defenses that can often be found ranked in the 100’s. With all of that said, the Big XII does seem to be a good proving ground for the NFL for one particular position on defense; safeties. With so many variations on spread concepts that commonly have as many as five different receiving options and taking advantage of space, Big XII safeties are tested in man coverage against receivers, huge zones, and making tackles in open space. Those who are able to prove they can not only do it, but do it on a high level, are uniquely ready to contribute in the NFL.
Whether it is against the run, bubble screens, or deeper passes, Big XII safeties are forced to cover a ton of ground and make tackles at high speeds. Big hits can yield big rewards in the form of forced fumbles or plays that get the rest of the team and the home crowd going, but if they miss, they are not just giving up a big play, but most likely points in addition to looking bad on film. This is a ton of pressure to perform for these kids and being able to handle that pressure can make the transition to the NFL easier. If guys are accustomed to making tackles in space, those spaces are smaller in the NFL because everyone is so much faster and the field is more crowded as a result. And because of the increased speed, the use of bubble screens is reduced. While NFL players are bigger, stronger, and faster, they are slightly more predictable in their general tendencies and the amount these safeties have to prepare for in terms of where they will have to make tackles is slightly reduced. And while everyone is fast in college football, of the conferences that feature the most spread type looks, the Big XII still has the most dynamic talent to try and tackle. One week having to try and tackle a talent like Stedman Bailey for West Virginia to Joseph Randle at Oklahoma State another to Terrance Williams for Baylor in a third. The talent level and the speed are high across the board.
The one issue that could be a big adjustment is the larger than life tight ends in the NFL. While they are not quite as fast as guys like Bailey and Williams, they are not exactly slow either and can come in a 6’6” 250lb+ frame. The problem is there is no good way to train for defending these types of guys, Big XII or otherwise. They do not come from one place and they do not typically produce to the level they will in the NFL. It is just an incredibly difficult task no matter who the player is.
The other aspect of tackling that helps Big XII safeties and hurts others is the rule changes at the NFL level. With an increased emphasis on safety, the strike zone has shrunk for laying big hits on opposing receivers and it is actually easier to be an intimidating safety at the college level than in the NFL. As a result, colleges can take bigger, slightly less athletic safeties that can play the position more like a smaller linebacker than a bigger corner. The Big XII, because of how their style of football has evolved, forces them to use slightly smaller, more athletic safeties that can cover a lot of ground. The SEC is a good example of a conference that has its share of extremely athletic safeties, but definitely has its share of bigger safeties that are more of an enforcer against the run than a rangy defender against the pass.
Because they consistently have to defend against four and five receivers on pass plays, the Big XII forces safeties to play a significant amount of man coverage against receivers as well as some tight ends. This is an advantage for teams in the NFL where having a safety who can play man coverage allows them their to stay in their base defense to stop the run as opposed to switching to their nickel and substituting one of their linebackers for another defensive back. There are a number of college teams that will send players to the NFL with little or no experience in man coverage and that is not an easy adjustment to make at the NFL level where teams have less and less time to take the time to coach up players.
When it comes to zone coverage, Big XII safeties are typically responsible for a substantial amount of real estate for many of the reasons that have been mentioned. With more receivers attacking more of the field, safeties are forced to see more, protect more. Going from keeping track of as many as five receivers in college to an NFL where some looks may feature only a few receiving options could prove to be a relatively easy adjustment. Obviously, there are a number of other challenges they still have to deal with, but in that one area, it could make for an easier transition. And again, with the increased emphasis on safety, there is a much larger emphasis on ball skills and being able to force turnovers than intimidating opposing receivers so a conference that has a ton of snaps, a ton of throwing, and ultimately a lot of opportunities to cause turnovers and improve their craft, the Big XII is again, a great place for safeties to improve for the NFL.
With all of the advantages the Big XII conference has for producing safeties, it is a difficult path and the great prospects they produce are few and far between. Earl Thomas is the prototype for the safety that Big XII can produce. The current Seattle Seahawk and former Texas Longhorn is slightly smaller than average NFL safeties, but brings a ton of athletic ability and speed to the position. He is more of a coverage safety than anything else, but because of all of the skills he developed at Texas against the Big XII, he is a versatile player that can function in a number of roles in the Seahawks defense. He is able to play zone, man, and contribute against the run. Eric Berry played in the SEC at Tennessee, but he is in this same mold, but came with a more remarkable set of skills for the position and can do virtually anything on a football field, resulting in a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie.
Two players stand out in the current landscape of the Big XII for the safety position as it relates to the NFL draft: Kenny Vaccaro from Texas and Tony Jefferson from Oklahoma. Jefferson is an underclassman and will have to decide whether or not to enter the draft, but both he and Vaccaro bring this unique set of skills forged in Big XII play and have become stars. Both have great speed and the ability to flips their hips in man coverage. Both have range to make plays all over the field whether it is forcing a turnover or making a tackle. However, because of the nature of the Big XII, there are numerous examples of both making mistakes that result in huge plays. Overall, both of these guys are going to be high on draft boards and it should not come as a huge surprise if both of these guys enjoy surges in the draft process (assuming Jefferson declares) like Earl Thomas did in 2010.
With 32 different opinions on players and football in general, it is difficult to pick up on draft trends in the short term, but the NFL has changed the rules on safety and the position of safety has been impacted as much as any position in the league. As a result, there could be a dramatic shift in strategy for what teams look for in this position. The Big XII and more spread heavy conferences require a style of safety that is well adapted to the way the NFL is going and the Big XII's level of competition creates a difficult path for the best of these to prove themselves before moving onto the NFL.